Archive | Life as a Writer

Seven Tips for Getting Up Early to Write (Even if You’re a Night Owl)

5am writingFor many years, while I was working full time, I got up early to write before my kids woke up and things got hectic. As a die-hard night owl, adjusting to that schedule was rough. I’m not gunna lie. It took me a about eighteen months to settle in, but that was because I went about it all wrong.

If you’re a writer trying to eek out an hour a day, consider getting up early to write. Here are seven things I learned along the way that might make the process a little easier:

1. You don’t have to be a morning person.
I was absolutely NOT a morning person when I started. It was painful, no question about it, but eventually I got used to it because I had to. If you’re writing is important enough, you’ll get used to it. Here’s how:

2. Coffee.
If you own a coffee maker, it probably has a delayed start function. Take 10 minutes, google the make and model to find the owners manual, and read up on how to set it to start brewing ten minutes before your alarm goes off. You want the coffee to be ready to drink when you drag yourself out of bed. Hot coffee can be a powerful motivator.

3. A quick foot massage.
I know this sounds strange, but sometimes, when I was too tired to get up and even the promise of hot coffee wasn’t enough, I would pinch and roll each toe between my fingers for a few seconds. Somehow a quick little foot massage helped drag me into consciousness. (Maybe I’ll get my sis, founder at Green Leaf Acupuncture, to chime in on how this works in a future post.)

4. Do it (almost) every day.
For the first two years, I thought I was going easy on myself by only getting up early to write every other day. What I know now is that it is actually much harder to do every other day. Do it every day, or at least every workday. Just put it in your head that this is how you start workdays. It will be a drag at first, but eventually you will adjust. It will get easier. I struggled terribly with early mornings until I started waking up at 5am six days a week. I know, it sounds counterintuitive, but it’s easier to settle into it if you do it (almost) every day. (For the record, I’m a big believer in having one or two mornings a week to sleep in. It gives you something to look forward to, and it’s oh so sweet when you’re waking up so early every other morning. Trying to wake up at 5am every morning for ever will just lead to burn out.)

5. Establish a routine.
When you wake up super early to write you will be groggy. You will not want to think about anything too much until the coffee kicks in. For me, this meant establishing a routine. I would fill my mug and sit at the table with my coffee and my journal. I would aim to fill one page of the journal with whatever came to mind – seriously anything. It usually took me about half an hour, and I would notice my pen moving faster as the coffee kicked in. Then, I would close the journal, set the mug aside, and attack my writing.

6. Go to bed early.
Depending on how old you are, and how demanding your days can be, getting up super early on a regular basis will start to wear you down if you don’t compensate by going to bed a little earlier. As a night person by nature, I never used to get tired until after midnight. But I knew I needed sleep, so I started brushing my teeth and getting into bed earlier. For many weeks I would sit up and read until my usual crash-out time, but eventually the exhaustion caught up and I started falling asleep earlier. It’s embarrassing for a self-proclaimed night person to admit to going to bed at 9, but you’re a writer, damn it, and you’re doing it for your art.

7. Set an end time.
For me, writing time ended at 6:30 or when the kids woke up. Whichever came first. If you’re a mom, and/or if you’re working a full time job, you will need to set an end time. Write as much as you can in your allotted time and then pat yourself on the back. Whatever else happens that day, you wrote. And that is a fucking victory.

Happy writing!

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Let’s Get Our Damn Books to Agents This March

agents this marchThis is a text exchange I had recently with a good friend and fellow writer who is determined to get her debut novel out to agents this March.

We both have novels we’ve been working on for a while. A long while. Every year we say this is the year. But so far, year after year hasn’t been.

For me, the process of writing this first novel has been an education in and of itself. I’ve lost count of the number of drafts, but this is at least the fifth. I have quite literally deleted thousands of pages. It is a completely different story than it was when I started and I am a much better writer.

So when is it done?

I don’t know. When well-meaning friends and family ask, I usually reply that I read a lot, and I know a good book from a bad one. My book will be done when I read it and think it qualifies as a good book. To put something out into the world before I’m happy with it would just be a mistake. But it won’t ever get there if I don’t put the effort into finishing it.

Currently, my novel is sitting in a drawer, which I actually consider an important part of the process. I need some distance from it. While I’m accumulating this distance, I am working on a second novel. But I think I would be ready to go back to the first novel in a few weeks.

For some reason my friend has decided that March 2017 is the month to shoot for. And why not?

If I take my draft out of the drawer on September 1, and finish a draft by the end of November, I could hand it off to a few trusted readers in December. That would allow me to get feedback in January, make revisions through February, and start sending it out to agents this March.

It’s not a bad plan. I really would like to finish that baby and get it out into the world. Emotionally, I toggle back and forth from feeling pretty good about it, though I know it needs work, and feeling like “hey, it was a good exercise, and nobody ever needs to see it.”

So I guess I need to get over the doubts and just get back to writing. Now, to address the text message from my friend – what kind of pushing do I want?

My husband suggested I write a donation check to the NRA (in some painful amount like $300) and give it my writing buddy. Then, if I don’t hit my deadline, she is allowed to drop it in the mail. That would be motivating, for sure.

Do any of my writer friends out there have methods of motivating themselves that have proven particularly effective?

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A Modern Literary Salon

Before Saturday, I had never been to a literary salon. I guess I figured they were a thing of the past. When I pictured a literary salon I saw Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and Lytton Strachey sitting around smoking cigarettes and drinking themselves stupid while they critiqued each others writing, which sounds fun and all, but I’ve got kids.

But in the past month, I’ve been invited to two, count them two, literary salons. I attended the first on Saturday and it was fabulous. It was hosted by Barbara Abercrombie, a teacher in UCLA’s highly respected writers extension program. We met when I took a seminar from her in July, and to be fair, I kind of invited myself. Once I heard that this was happing, I knew I wanted to join, and she very graciously looped me into her email list so I could attend.

It was up in Arrowhead. If you’re not from Southern California, allow me to explain that this is far. It should be about an hour and half drive up into the mountains, except that there were 3 (!!!) accidents on the 210 eastbound that afternoon so it actually took me almost three hours in tripple-digit heat. But as soon as I got on highway 18 and began making my way up the mountain, the traffic fell away and the temperature dropped.

I stopped to take this photo from the side of the highway. It hardly does the view justice. It was lovely.
literary salon

And the long drive was totally worth it. We didn’t smoke and drink the day away. The day was mostly over by the time I got there. But it was an impressive group of creative people. I was there for about five minutes before I fell into a conversation more meaningful and interesting than I’ve had with strangers probably ever. Hours went by, and the sun went down, then Barbara fed us all lasagna and we got down to the business of reading.
literary salon

Five people read from works in progress. There was no feedback, or critique. It was just a chance to share our writing. It was awesome. It felt like I had found my people. Writers. Writers who write. Three cheers for the literary salon – who knew?

The entire evening felt like a cleansing exhale.

I wish I had been able to stay late into the night, as most of the guests did, but I had a long drive home ahead of me, so I bailed around 10 and grinned all the way home. It really was a fantastic experience.

The next literary salon I’m attending is in September. This is a newer group, hosted by a writer friend I admire very much. It will be interesting to see how the energy compares. Two big benefits to this one: it’s in Mount Washington (which is about 5 minutes from my home) and I get to bring my hubby. I can hardly wait.

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On Writing Well

on writing wellA couple of years back, I taught a class on writing well.

My students were super smart engineers, who happened to write poorly. The aim wasn’t to turn them into brilliant storytellers, but rather, to ensure that they could communicate their ideas clearly. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re the most brilliant scientist to ever live. If you can’t impart your ideas with the written word, your reach will be limited to the number of people you can personally talk to and your ideas will die with you.

I’ve been thinking about that class a lot lately. I enjoyed teaching it, but more than that, I found a deep satisfaction in turning poor writers into capable ones. If I managed to teach one person that quotation marks should never be used for emphasis, I will have left this world a little better than I found it.

Inspired by this experience, I’m considering creating a downloadable cheat sheet of writing tips, something that could be easily shared and sent to coworkers to help them write well. It would be the kind of thing that a supervisor could send to someone whose written communications could use a little polish. It would be aimed at smart people who, for whatever reason, simply never learned to put their periods inside the quotation marks.

I might even set this up as a service. Say you have a smart coworker who can’t write for shit. You could send me their email, and I would send them the guide with a note that someone cared enough about their career to ask me to help them out.

If you work in an office, and tend toward grammar nerdery, you’ve probably cringed at the writing of a co-worker. What are your biggest pet peeves? What would you include in a writing cheat sheet like the one I’m describing? You can leave a comment here, or hit me up on Facebook or Twitter. I won’t tell your coworkers, promise.

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My Updated Submission Spreadsheet

Updated submission spreadsheetA few months back I shared a submission spreadsheet that I created in Google docs to track when and where I submit my short stories. If you missed that post, you can check it out here for a full explanation of what this thing is all about.

Since then, I have finished other short stories and have started submitting those as well. As I tossed those stories into the mix, it quickly became apparent that the spreadsheet needed a face lift. And since I’m not the only one out there submitting short stories to journals, I thought I would share the new and improved submission spreadsheet with all my fellow writers out there.

You can download the updated submission spreadsheet here.

And to help you make the most of it, here is a brief explanation of what each of the columns is for.

A. Status
This is usually “Submitted” or “Passed.” It sometimes says “ACCEPTED!” It is, clearly, the status of my submission. As a side note, I tend to grey out the rows with the status of Pass. It makes for easier scanning of the table as a whole.

B. My Rank
Generally I rank my submission priorities by circulation numbers (the way I figure, the larger a journal’s circulation, the more eyes will see my story). However, Column B is my acknowledgement that size isn’t everything. I use tiers and rank journals a 1, 2, or 3. So a journal that has a smaller circulation and would otherwise be low on my list, may still get a 1 because I really like it, or my story fits a themed issue they have coming up, or something.

C. Story Submitted
This is a key new column that I added when I started having more than one story out in the world at a time. You need to know what story you sent to which journal.

D. Date Submitted
A good thing to keep track of. Most journals don’t want to hear from you, but I feel like if it has been four months, it’s okay to drop them a line.

E. Name of Journal/Contest
Nuf said.

F. Submission Window
I found that while I was researching places to send my story I often came across journals that weren’t accepting submissions until, say, the first of September. So I make a note of the submission window.

G. Cost to Submit
The cost of submitting is something I’ve become hyper-aware of lately, as I am submitting more and more. This is simply for me to help budget future submissions. It’s also kind of depressing, and you can totally ignore that column if you want to.

H. Circulation
Not all journals list their circulation, but if they do, or if I can find it on Poets & Writers, I make a note of it. See B for my reasoning behind this.

I. Max Word/Page Count
Again, I found this useful as I started submitting more than one story at a time. I have some stories that are short (1,500 words) and some that are longer (15,000 words). Most journals have a range they’re looking for.

J. Prize or Payment
I tend to give priority to any journal or contest that actually pays cash money. Given how much I am spending to send things out (see G), it would be nice to be paid in more than copies.

So there you have it, the updated submission spreadsheet.

If you’ve made any modifications, or if you have your own method for tracking submissions, I would love to hear about them. This is, more than anything, an ongoing project and I am always looking for ways to improve on my methods.

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Studying with Barbara Abercrombie

Abercrombie seminarOn Sunday, I attended a one-day writing seminar in my new home town of La Canada. Honestly, the location was the only reason I signed up. My mom was in town, and the timing wasn’t great, but I’m on a bit of a mission to find a community of writers here and this seemed like an opportunity with some potential.

Funny enough, the person I most enjoyed getting to know was the instructor, Barbara Abercrombie, who doesn’t actually live or work in La Canada at all. But her son and his family do, and she is considering making the move from the west side to our little town. It would be a big shift. If you don’t live in southern California, it’s difficult to understand that the east side and west side are actually very different places.

You might think, what’s the big deal, it’s all LA, right? But you’d be wrong. West siders have the beach, east siders have the mountains, and between us is a world of traffic that only a fool would traverse on a regular basis. In fact, I’ve met many people who simply say they don’t cross Normandie, not for nobody, no how.

Anyhow, I’m getting off topic. Abercrombie usually teaches at UCLA Extension (on the west side). In fact, her teaching style reminds me a bit of my class with Mark Sarvas in the Extension program. She is very encouraging and diplomatic. She didn’t let anyone commandeer the room, but still left space for kidding around. And the class size was perfect. There were only six students in the room.

The group that hosted Sunday’s event is putting together another seminar for October 2. It would be awesome if we could get some east-side writers to represent and draw Ms. Abercrombie to our side of the city, if only for a day.

I can’t find any information online for it yet, but stay tuned. I will be sure to post about it as it gets closer.

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The Pros and Cons of a Writing Routine

Since quitting my job in December, my weekday writing routine has been to get the kids off to school, work on my writing for two hours, and then devote the remainder of my day to my freelance work until it’s time to go get the kids. It was a good routine, until it wasn’t.

The trouble with writing routines is that the smallest thing can throw them off and disrupt your writing. Never mind the big things, like moving.

That was the first disruption I had this year. Moving to a new home not only drained all my energy and made it hard to find anything, it also just messed up my routine. I can’t even say why exactly, but in the old house, when I sat down to write, my brain knew it was time to engage. At the new house I found I was distracted by the tiniest things.

Then, just as I was beginning to adjust to the new space, the kids finished up school, and changed up our routine all over again. This is the first summer that I’m not working full time, and I love being home with them, but my routine has taken a serious hit. I feel like I am always scrambling to find time for the work that needs to be done for my clients, and then I end up squeezing in my own writing whenever I have time – which I rarely do.

It has raised the question in my head: is it more productive to have a regular writing routine, or better to avoid routine and be able to write anywhere, any time?

I would love to hear from the other writers out there, particularly those with kids. How do you juggle everything? Do you stick to a routine, or fly by the seat of your pants? I’m looking for a detailed daily breakdown here. Help a writer out.

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Keep The Channel Open

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”

-excerpt from Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham- A Biography

I love this quote. It reminds me who I am writing for: me. I write the stories I want to read, but it is a challenge every day to not compare myself with other writers. Every day I strive to keep the channel open, to not think about whether my work is valuable or not. I struggle every day to set aside the question of whether or not I even believe in myself.

Martha’s words remind me that writing is an art, and that I have a unique voice to add to the chorus of voices out there. In the same way I sing in the shower, I endeavor to write like nobody is reading, just for me.

This is probably only going to get harder, because eventually I do plan to pitch my novel to agents, and I hope to sell my book to a publisher, who will then attempt to market it to the masses. Every step of that process sounds like an exercise in humility.

But I guess I’ll jump off those bridges when I get to them.

For now – I write, and keep the channel open.

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The Very Real Costs of Submission

the cost of literary journal submissionI was looking at my journal submission spreadsheet the other day. I got another rejection (ug) and so I was checking to see where to send my story next.

I’ve blogged before about how I try to see rejection as getting closer to acceptance, but as I scrolled down the list of places I’ve submitted to over the past few months, it occurred to me that almost every time I send my story out I pay a fee.

Reading fees are modest, yes, but they do add up. In my experience, they fall somewhere between $10-15, with the average closer to $12. So far, I’ve submitted my most recent story 30 times. That’s about $360 in submission fees, give or take.

Considering that, when the story is finally published (as I’m confident it will be), payment will be in copies, the money I’m spending in pursuit of publication is not money that will be recouped. So what am I getting for my money?

The word that comes to mind is encouragement. Especially given that my most recent short story is an excerpt from the novel that I’m working on, having a journal publish it would be so encouraging.

There is also the slim, but real, chance that an agent might see my story and be interested in seeing more from me. That would be the best possible income.

But how much is that worth to me?

I can think of a lot of ways I could spend $1,000. None of them would get me an agent, but they are all better than pissing money away. If I simply want to throw money around, a weekend in Vegas would be a lot more fun.

I need to think seriously about the balance between cost and reward here. Maybe there are grants available for submission fees. Or maybe I should be submitting to contests with prizes instead of literary journals. Any writers out there have some wisdom on this one? I would love to hear it.

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I Love Ecuador

We just got back from a quick trip to Quito for a wedding. I realized while I was there that it’s been almost 10 years! I went once just after Daniel and I got engaged to meet the family, and then again a few years later to live with Daniel’s aunt, uncle, and cousins for a few months to study Spanish.

I had terrible altitude sickness on that second trip, or, at least I thought I did. After a few weeks, when I was still sick all day, I realized it had been a while since my last period. Turns out altitude sickness and pregnancy feel pretty much the same.

Anyway, it’s been far too long since I’ve been back. The bride on Saturday was one of the cousins I lived with when I was pregnant. I was so happy to get to be there for her wedding.

the bride in Quito Ecuador

A hug with the beautiful bride.

On Sunday we lazed around the family home in the mountains just south of Quito, eating, watching soccer, napping and (for me) writing. I could seriously get used to that lifestyle. I even started a new short story. It’s one I’ve been trying to get my head around for a while, and I think I’ve got a good start on it.

I’m in the airport in Phoenix, two plane rides down, one more to go to get back to my dad’s place in Northern Idaho. The kids are waiting there. I can’t wait to see them.

Here are a few photos from the trip.

Quito Ecuador

Our lunch table, looking out over the garden.

The patio in Quito, Ecuador

The patio where I spent the day writing.

Quito Ecuador

These pots actually get used. I love them.

locro in Quito Ecuador

Locro, a delicious stew with all the fixin’s.

Quito Ecuador

A pretty spot we found near the house.

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